Raising a Market

What a Competitor to the Android Market Needs

Some people have taken issue with my calls for developers to employ alternative markets in addition to — or possibly instead of — the Android Market. The prevailing sentiment seems to be “too much work, not enough results”. That is a perfectly rational, if short-term, perspective on the present situation. However, it ignores the impacts that developer choices today will have on available Market competitors in the future.

To examine this, let's think about what a robust direct competitor to the Android Market would need.

First and foremost, it would need a brand. While it is possible that an upstart could achieve substantial market share despite the Android Market being pre-installed on many devices, it is more likely that the competitor would have to be associated with a major brand in order to gain traction. Fortunately, there are many brands out there that might be compelling to users, such as Amazon and eBay.

Second, it would need one or more “hooks” to draw users to consider their market in addition to the Android Market. In some cases, those hooks might be supplied by the Android Market itself (e.g., if the competitor offers paid applications in places where the Android Market does not). In some cases, those hooks might be based on the brand's existing reputation and services, such as Amazon's product ratings or eBay's seller ratings.

Third, it would need infrastructure, to be able to collect apps, sell them, process updates, and so forth. Some brands might choose to build that for themselves — Amazon, for example, would likely extend its existing distribution system for Kindle content. However, a key model for this sort of R&D is the acquisition, where a big brand scoops up the tech implemented by a smaller firm — think Amazon buying Mobipocket for its Kindle format. This only works if the smaller firm has proven that their tech will be a solid starting point for such infrastructure, and that will only happen if they get some amount of traction, particularly from developers. So, the markets you support today might become the infrastructure for bigger markets in the future.

Fourth, it would need content, in the form of apps. Once again, this is up to developers. If developers elect to ignore independent markets, it matters not a whit how big the brand is, how compelling their offering is, or how solid their infrastructure is. One would hope that developers would become interested based on the brand alone, but the tepid developer interest in ARCHOS' AppsLib does not bode terribly well here, and only time will tell how Motorola's SHOP4APPS will do. So, the markets you support today will establish a practice that there is more out there than the Android Market and make it that much more likely you will try other competitors if and when they arise.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, is that it would need the willingness to try. The bigger the brand, the bigger the damage from high-profile market moves, and trying to compete with the Android Market would be reasonably high-profile. And this is where developer reticence is the biggest problem — if potential brands think that developers only care about the Android Market, those brands will be less willing to try to compete, figuring that their odds of success are lower. So, the markets you support today provide evidence to brands that you might support their own markets in the future.

There is little question that much could be done to simplify distribution of Android applications through multiple channels, and in time somebody will hopefully offer some tools or protocols or something to help here. There is little question that the alternative markets of today have modest distribution and, therefore, will give you modest results. All I ask is that you consider the strategic implications along with the tactical ones, and consider whether the additional annoyance may be worth it to help increase the odds of better markets — including improvements to the Android Market itself — arising in the future.

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